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Sunday, May 20, 2012

"The Dictator" & Comedy As A Political Tool

Video: Trailer for the new political comedy "Veep" on HBO, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus of Seinfeld fame

You know how men tend to clap their hands over their ears when women start lecturing them about feminism?

It turns out that humor works a lot better, without the nasty side effects:
"The popular dismantling of entrenched feminist stereotypes began, perhaps, not with the feminist movement itself, but in comedy....on “The Daily Show”: 'What’s the difference between a fertilized egg, a corporation and a woman? One of them isn’t considered a person in Oklahoma.'"

- Rebecca Traister, "How the 'War On Women' Quashed Feminist Stereotypes," The Washington Post, May 11, 2012
A similar principle is at work in Sacha Baron Cohen's new movie The Dictator. It is not Borat - but you would be forgiven for confusing the two. Both are shocking, sometimes unwatchable, offensive and endlessly funny. (Warning: It's very graphic, NSFW or for the young or easily offended.)

The first one, artistically, was a better movie. But the new one is equally compelling. And considering that it's really a political argument in the guise of a comedy, on the whole it is probably better.
 In the space of 83 hilarious minutes, Cohen gets you thinking:
  • Is a democratic society dominated by a wealthy few, very different from a dictatorship?
  • Are dictators more effective at getting results? If they are, is democracy worth it?
  • Can a dictatorial person ever really be "reformed?"
  • How do you get people to pull their weight without torturing or forcing them?
  • Are talented underlings inherently undermining of leadership?
  • Is our obsession with social media taking away our capacity for real relationships?
As a side dish the viewer also gets a healthy dose of Cohen poking fun at racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, anti-Arab stereotypes, homophobia, the homeless, the disabled...is anybody left out? (It's a very inclusive movie, in that way.)
 Once you get the joke you see...the movie is really about a vision of social justice. But it's conveyed nearly completely in the language of those who would totally resist change.

Some people think that making fun of serious social problems actually reduces their seriousness.

Maybe. To me it's a case of whatever works:
  • For example, Frum Satire makes fun of the distance between Jewish ideals, and what is sometimes reality. Failed Messiah hits out at those things, with extreme seriousness.
  • Jezebel often pokes fun at the anti-feminist. The National Organization for Women's website goes after the "bad guys" no-holds-barred.
  • The Soup makes fun of reality TV shows like Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Others go the serious route, as did one individual who started an online petition in November 2011 to get the show off the air.
One thing that I like about social-commentary movies - whether fiction, mockumentary, documentary or what have you - is how capably they can blend humor with a serious social message. Morgan Spurlock's film The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (about the pervasiveness and ethics of product placement) is a great example as is Fahrenheit 911 by Michael Moore.

More than that, what's fascinating to me - if you think about people who immerse themselves in upsetting subject - is the human capacity to laugh despite all the troubles that exist out there.

Which is why my favorite filmmaker of all remains the neurotic, pessimistic, Jewish agnostic Woody Allen, who famously said:
Have a great weekend everyone - keep smiling - and good luck!